Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
'Strange Meeting', Wilfred Owen
'Escape in some form or another is never far from the thoughts of a soldier serving overseas. In Strange Meeting, one of Wilfred Owen’s most haunting poems, the only escape from the trenches is a dreamlike death, a measure perhaps of the monotonous horror of the conflict in which he found himself immersed.
In contrast to his 1914-18 predecessor, the British Tommy in Helmand— even on the ever-shifting front line, where he occupies for the night some eerily abandoned compound before pushing on through the green zone the next morning — has a surprisingly wide array of technological means of keeping le cafard at bay hidden somewhere in his backpack.
Soldiers listen to the radio wherever they can get their hands on one and BFBS does sterling work broadcasting to troops from the Falklands to Fallingbostel.
But, I always found it a little cruel that Friday nights, which would otherwise have gone unremarked (as any sense of “weekend” is quickly lost on grinding six-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) were given over to long sets of commercial house and euphoric trance music that is being played in the sort of clubs across Europe that we couldn’t have been farther from.
Moreover, with radio you’re dependent on someone else’s playlist, so you crave something a little more personal. Gnarly Ulster veterans smile with fond memories of the early waterproof and shockproof Sony Walkmans but in truth these were too bulky and too battery-hungry to be ideal for anyone pushing too far from base. With the advent of the modern MP3 player, tiny and light with a huge memory and low battery consumption, the infantryman has an ideal companion.
The value of being able to retreat into little white headphones during precious downtime or — for the truly well prepared — to pump out through tinny portable speakers something a little more upbeat for a sunny morning in an FOB lies not just in the distraction from what otherwise might be, at best, monotonous hard work and, at worst, the most intense and extreme experiences of young soldiers’ lives, but beyond that in music’s therapeutic capacity to transport us from wherever we are.
One of the most striking things I took away from my brief experiences of close combat was how similar being ambushed, for example, felt to being in a large nightclub — the overwhelming noise, adrenalin surge, confusion and sensory overload.
Perfect, therefore, that the iPod my team had rigged up to our vehicle would, almost unfailingly, be playing something suitably hardcore when a contact flared up. Until, that is (with a sense of mischief that makes you wonder if there’s something Apple isn’t telling us), we were engaged by the Taleban for about the tenth day in a row and the shuffle function brilliantly selected Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 as we started to return fire.
I found that being able to escape like this was most useful in the long periods spent in a twilight zone of rest. Sleep comes in irregular and ill-timed little chunks to those on operations, and it’s difficult just to drift off out on the roof of some compound, marvelling at a clear night sky and wondering about the enemy, probably trying just as unsuccessfully to get some rest a few hundred metres away.
In such moments, trying to calm down after a long patrol and a big fight or, worst of all, reflecting on comrades on their way home with injuries or worse, the calming effect of a playlist redolent of happier times and home cannot be overestimated.
CNN reported this week that US troops in Afghanistan are falling victim to le cafard. Having been spoilt by the incredible welfare support structures that existed throughout the Iraq war, they had become used to internet links home, daily video calls to loved ones and the comfort and entertainment of a weekly movie night (a treat we Brits were kindly invited to join whenever we were in Camp Shorabak until we spoilt it by stealing all the popcorn).
The austerity of Helmand has taken aback some of the Americans as they readjust to the old-fashioned two-week wait for precious “snail mail”.
But the natural ingenuity of soldiers usually means that, before long, they can find a way to tamper with communications devices, rigging laptops so that DVDs can be watched in short-episode bursts while sharing a single generator point with something more important, or bypassing systems so that signallers can play solitaire to pass the long hours on radio duty.
In the rear, the popularity of handheld games consoles and even larger systems is obvious. Tent buddies club together to buy full-size TVs, a worthwhile investment at the start of a long six months, with bargains to be had in the thriving trade that goes on between incoming and outgoing formations during any handover period. This guarantees that, for at least a couple of hours a week, through a game or a movie, they will be briefly somewhere else.
And out on the line, the guys trying to sleep will, if they’re anything like I was, rely on the iPod shuffle function to throw up more surprises: Girls Aloud as flares light up the evening and the choppers thunder low across the valley. Now that’s what I call escapism.'How the iPod became essential infantry kit Whether it’s hardcore songs for battle or rigging up a DVD, soldiers in Helmand choose a personal escape route from war